An Introduction to Partitive Exegesis in Gregory’s Oration 29

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The first time I read Matthew 24:36, I was a bit shaken. Jesus promises to return, yet he says that “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (cf. Mark 13:32). If Jesus is truly God, and God is omniscient, then how can the Father know something that the Son doesn’t? Such verses can be a stumbling block for those who are “unskilled in the word of righteousness” (Heb. 5:13), especially when they encounter false teachers who take the things in Scripture “that are hard to understand” and “twist [them] to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16).

In the fourth century, Gregory the Theologian, a bishop from Nazianzus (a small town in the region of Cappadocia or modern-day Turkey), encountered this challenge. In Oration 29, the third of his famous Five Theological Orations (Orations 27–31), Gregory addresses those who read verses like Matthew 24:36 and conclude that Jesus is not fully God. His exegetical solution is known as partitive exegesis: some things in Scripture need to be attributed to the Son according to his divine nature, while other things need to be attributed to the Son according to the human nature which he assumed for us and for our salvation. Partitive exegesis helps us to make sense of all the biblical data while upholding the full divinity, full humanity, and especially the personal unity of Christ.

Partitive Exegesis in Gregory of Nazianzus

Gregory first lists examples of the “grand and sublime language” that Scripture uses to teach us that Jesus is fully God: “expressions like ‘God,’ ‘Word,’ ‘he who is in the beginning’” (Or. 29.17). Then, he lists examples of words or phrases that seem to say something different and, on the surface, may cause an unskilled Bible reader to stumble: Christ was “obedient,” “learned,” or “grew up”; or, to quote “the even lowlier expressions” (Or. 29:18), Christ “slept” or “was hungry” or “got tired.”

Partitive exegesis helps us to make sense of all the biblical data while upholding the full divinity, full humanity, and especially the personal unity of Christ.

This second set of statements, like the statement that the Son doesn’t know the hour of his return (Mt. 24:36), causes some to stumble, but “it is not a hard task to clear away the stumbling block” (Or. 29.18). We just need to remember the truth confessed in the Chalcedonian Creed: Jesus Christ is “one Person” who is “truly God and truly man.” All of these expressions are properly attributed to the one Person of Christ, but some must be attributed to Christ according to his divine nature, while others must be attributed to Christ according to his human nature. Jesus “is in the beginning” because he is God; he “learned” because he is man.

In sum: you must predicate the more sublime expressions of the Godhead, of the nature which transcends bodily experiences, and the lowlier ones of the compound, of him who because of you was emptied, became incarnate and (to use equally valid language) was “made man.” (Or. 29.18)

While this sorting of expressions may seem to divide Christ, partitive exegesis is fundamentally unitive: it attributes both divine and human attributes or acts to the same personal subject. Since the one who died and the one who “is in the beginning” are one and the same Person, we can freely say that God died on the cross and that Jesus is eternal. Yet partitive exegesis makes clear that when we say “God died,” we mean “the one Person who is God died according to the human nature which he assumed,” and when we say “Jesus is eternal” we mean “the one Person who is Jesus is eternal according to the divine nature.”

Gregory Against Kenoticism

In Oration 29, Gregory goes on to teach that there was a time when the Son of God did not have a human nature. He eternally existed with the Father and the Spirit and was “transcendent, over even you” (Or. 29.19). Then, for us and for our salvation, he became truly man without ceasing to be truly God: “He remained what he was; what he was not, he assumed” (Or. 29.19). Gregory thus rejects the error traditionally known as kenoticism, which reads verses like Matthew 24:36 and concludes that the Son did not know because he set aside some of his divine attributes (in this case, omniscience) when he became a man.

Kenoticism comes from a misreading of Philippians 2: “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied (ekenōsen) himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Php. 2:6–7). “Emptying” does not indicate a divestiture of divine attributes; that’s impossible, since God is immutable (Mal. 3:6; Jas. 1:17). Rather, Gregory explains, “emptying” is just another way of referring to the Son’s “taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Php. 2:7). It is synonymous with the incarnation, as stated above: “because of you [he] was emptied, became incarnate and (to use equally valid language) was ‘made man’” (Or. 29.18).

In the incarnation, the Son remained what he was: truly God and thus omniscient.

In the incarnation, the Son remained what he was: truly God and thus omniscient. He knew who would betray him (Jn. 13:11) and what men were thinking (Mt. 12:25), so that Peter could say, “Lord, You know all things” (Jn. 21:17). There can never be a time when the Son does not know something according to his divine nature. Matthew 24:36 is only true of the Son according to his human nature. When we read about Christ’s weaknesses or limitations, we should not think of Christ as some kind of lesser being during his time on earth, as though he temporarily dumped out some of the divine attributes; rather, we should attribute his weaknesses or limitations to the human nature which he assumed for our salvation, never forgetting that he is almighty and infinite according to his divine nature.

Examples of Partitive Exegesis

At our church, we offer a class on “How to Get More Out of Your Bible Reading.” One of the lessons is on how the Creeds serve as helps and boundaries for biblical interpretation. In one exercise, we break into groups to read the Chalcedonian Creed and practice partitive exegesis with the following italicized expressions. Try attributing them to the one Person of Jesus Christ according to either his human or divine nature:

  • “And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” (Mt. 4:2)
  • “He bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (Jn. 19:30)”
  • “But he knew their thoughts.” (Lk. 6:8)
  • “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (Mt. 24:36)
  • “He said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” (Mt. 9:2)
  • “And the child grew and became strong.” (Lk. 2:40)
  • “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Lk. 22:42)
  • “He learned obedience through what he suffered.” (Heb. 5:8)
  • “I and the Father are one.” (Jn. 10:30)
  • “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.’” (Jn. 8:58)

Familiar verses like Luke 22:42, “Not my will, but yours, be done,” become clear when practicing partitive exegesis. Since the Father and the Son share one divine nature, the Son is already and always of one will with the Father; therefore, Christ must be submitting to the Father according to his human will in this passage. He is praying, “not my human will, but your divine will, be done.” The Son “learned obedience” (Heb. 5:8) according to his human nature, since obedience was something that he had not previously known. Submission is an act proper to man, not to God: “The footstool is for those who need to fall down in submission, but the bosom of the Father is the proper set of the Son” (Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, 6.15).

Gregory concludes Oration 29 with a breathtaking display of partitive exegesis. It’s a beautiful example of the clarity and beauty that comes with the theological interpretation of Scripture:

As man he was baptized, but he absolved sins as God; … As man he was put to the test, but as God he came through victorious … He hungered—yet he fed thousands. He is indeed “living, heavenly bread.” He thirsted—yet he exclaimed: “Whosoever thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” … He was tired—yet he is the “rest” of the weary and the burdened. … He pays tax—yet he uses a fish to do it; indeed he is emperor over those who demand the tax. … He weeps, yet he puts an end to weeping. He asks where Lazarus is laid—he was man; yet he raises Lazarus—he was God. He is sold, and cheap was the price—thirty pieces of silver; yet he buys back the world at the mighty cost of his own blood. … He surrenders his life, yet he has the power to take it again. … He dies, but he vivifies and by death destroys death. He is buried, yet he rises again. He goes down to Hades, yet he leads souls up, ascends to heaven, and will come to judge the quick and the dead … If the first set of expressions starts you going astray, the second set takes your error away. (Or. 29.20)